This review contains full spoilers for episode one of The Last of Us, now available to view on HBO Max. To stay spoiler-free, check out our The Last of Us Season 1 Review.
Within the first minute of HBO’s The Last of Us, it’s immediately clear that this series isn’t going to be a straightforward 1-1 adaptation of the beloved video game. Its cold opening builds out the story behind the origin of the virus that will act as a catalyst for everything else to come in a talk show scene more akin in tone to something out of showrunner Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl. It sets the stage perfectly for newcomers – giving all-too-relatable pandemic context – while also providing nourishment for viewers well-versed in the game. It’s an ethos repeated throughout the series premiere, which acts as a brilliant new entry point into the world of The Last of Us.
The series premiere achieves two key things: it sets up the world that we’ll spend the following eight episodes in, and establishes Joel as the complex character he is. When we meet him in Texas 20 years prior to the main events, the centre of his world is his daughter Sarah, portrayed charmingly by Nico Parker. The initial stretch of Sarah’s story offers up snapshots of life before the impending pandemic seen through her inquisitive teenage eyes – granting us a deeper connection with her before we’re suddenly torn apart later in the episode. These early scenes do a fantastic job of not only relating us to a once familiar world, but also to the key paternal relationship of Joel and Sarah – both contextualising key information in an impressively emotional way.
As night falls and all hell breaks loose, we get some of our first glimpses of scenes taken from the game that have been given new life. Interestingly, one of the first of these almost directly imitates the positioning of the in-game camera as we sit in the backseat of a truck with Sarah and watch the chaos unfold from her perspective. It’s a nice nod, as well as a smart decision that further cements Sarah as the viewer’s proxy similar to when she was once the player’s. It’s a sequence that also gives us a look into Joel’s complex psyche as Pedro Pascal subtly displays both his caring and ruthless nature. He’ll do anything to protect the ones he loves, even if that means leaving others to fend for themselves, as shown by his refusal to help a family in need by the side of the road.
When on foot, we start to get a full sense of the threat that now sweeps through the streets as fires burn, vehicles explode, and the infected are born. Early infected move like toddlers learning to run – uncertain in their new bodies but determined as they spill around the room. They are learning to exist in a world as abruptly as the world is learning to exist with them – neither doing a great job of it as the deliberately frantic action displays. Of course, it all builds up to the moment that will shape every aspect of Joel’s existence from that point: the death of his daughter. It’s as sudden and shocking as ever – whether it be the first or the 12th time you’ve witnessed it – and made all the more heartbreaking by Pascal’s desperate cries and the firmly innocent moments we’d just spent with Sarah.
It’s an opening half an hour that hits home thanks to heart-wrenching performances, but also its technical artistry. As normal life draws to a close, the impending disaster is kept ominously out of focus – quite literally so in the haunting image of Sarah’s convulsing elderly neighbour. Warm sunlight floods the screen before alarming reds and blues dart through darkness as the lens is exposed, just as we are, to the creeping momentum of the outbreak. Sarah’s passing signals a change in the camera’s focus to Joel 20 years later as browns, greens, and greys desaturate the world and signal darker times are here to stay. It’s a clever implementation of camera behaviour and shifting perspectives that work to great effect.
The Last of Us HBO Series Character Guide
A harsh new world takes society’s place as we’re welcomed to Boston’s Quarantine Zone and the militarised imitation of a community it plays home to. The fungal virus has spread with no cure having been found. A stark display of this can be seen in the clinical death and subsequent burning of a newly infected boy that welcomes us into this alternate 2023. It’s also where we meet another child recently bitten by an infected, but one that may well hold the key to unlocking the world as its inhabitants used to know it. Ellie, a brash product of her environment, leaps off of the screen from her very first moments thanks to the talents of Bella Ramsey. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her this time around, but it’s clear that Ramsey is set to be a force of nature to be reckoned with over the course of the series – and one that may be needed in order to reclaim the world from the sickly nature that has overcome it.
Anna Torv also impresses as the hardened Tess, who particularly shines in a well-constructed interrogation scene and subsequent explosive escape. Merle Dandridge successfully reprises her role from the game as Fireflies leader Marlene, displaying both a hardness you’d expect from a supposed terrorist, but also moments of openness and vulnerability towards both Joel and Ellie when briefing them on their mission. All around the cast do a fantastic job of building not one, but two very different and very human places in this opening chapter.
Also impressive are the locations these characters work in, with the Boston QZ’s grimy ghettos and run-down streets giving off a tangible sense of place, where any definition of comfortable living has long since faded; local shopkeepers and friendly neighbours are now replaced with drug smugglers and armed enforcers.
The episode covers a lot over the course of 80 minutes, doing so deftly for the main part, albeit with some slightly rushed introductions to people and terminology that barely allow for a moment to breathe. Concepts such as the outbreak, quarantine zones, the Fireflies, and the general state of the world are presented at breakneck speed. The show seems as hell-bent as Joel to leave the QZ at times which makes for a pacey opening, but one that could leave the uninitiated a little lost at sea. One aspect that is thankfully given space is Ellie and Joel’s first moments alone together. It serves as an enjoyable peek into their dynamic: one full of tension and lacking in trust, but with a fun edge as Ellie smartly works out Joel’s radio code.
As Joel, Ellie, and Tess venture off into the unknown together, we’re finally given a moment to catch our breath. They may not know what twists and turns await them, but the premiere of The Last of Us does a great job of preparing us for the rollercoaster of emotions ahead. It brilliantly offers up sparks of welcome brightness amongst seemingly irrepressible darkness – much like the lightning that crashes across the night sky above, illuminating their road ahead.